What's the Secret to This Community College's Fundraising Success?

Community colleges are the poor cousins of higher education. Many are trapped in something akin to intergenerational poverty, serving lower-income students and producing few alumni who earn enough money to become major donors. It was big news in New York City last year when LaGaurdia Community College landed a record $2 million gift—one that doubled its endowment. Meanwhile, in 2015, Harvard raised an average of over $3 million a day

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Despite these odds, strong fundraising can make a huge difference in how well community colleges perform financially, and mounting such efforts is growing ever more critical as these schools face government budget cuts. 

Which brings us to Los Angeles City College, an institution with a standout development operation. 

This school is located in central Los Angeles, between Koreatown and Little Armenia. Most of its 20,000 students come from underserved communities—about half of the very diverse student population is Hispanic —and are often the first members of their families to attend college.

Though LACC was founded in 1929, it wasn't until 1968 that the Los Angeles City College Foundation was established to bolster financial support for underfunded programs. One of the foundation's strengths is how it taps into the school's long history. “We probably have one of the biggest alumni databases in the state with probably about 700,000 names," said Robert Schwartz, the executive director of the LACC Foundation. The database lists alumni back to as early as 1940. 

Inside Philanthropy spoke with Schwartz about how LACC raises funds to fulfill its mission, and it wasn't long before the conversation turned to the topic of the alumni database, which he sees as a key reason why the LACC Foundation pulls in more financial support than any of the other schools in the L.A. Community College District. Its financial assets have doubled in just the past five years. 

Many community colleges don't have anything like the foundation's alumni database, even though all campus development departments know that up-to-date contact information for alumni is pure gold. Schwartz said that a number of recent studies demonstrate that "the reason people have not given to community colleges is that nobody has ever asked them, so it’s that simple.” Of course, a prerequisite for asking an alum for money is the ability to get in touch with them. 

Building the database wasn't easy, said Schwartz, but the LACC Foundation has made it something of a crusade. "It took probably close to 10 years to get approval from the L.A. district to get in touch with alumni because there was a question about privacy rules; we finally prevailed in that discussion. We were lucky to have the wherewithal financially that we could afford to build that database, which is an expensive proposition— first obtaining records then the de-duping them and doing all the reports that you have to do to find the people you want to ask for money."

The investment was well worth it. For a city community college, LACC's alumni list is impressive, including actors Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and James Coburn; composer John Williams, as well as choreographer Alvin Ailey, architect Frank Gehry and L.A. City Councilors Tom LaBonge and Bernard Parks, to name a few. “So there’s an incredible list of people that attended the school,” Schwartz said.

Finding out how to reach the alumni was only half of the battle. The other half has been engaging these folks, many of whom had not heard from their alma mater in decades and had no clue about what's been happening on campus. Schwartz has put a big focus on better marketing, drawing on his experience and contacts as a former Hollywood executive to punch up the media component of LACC foundation’s appeal with a stronger online presence and videos. 

Beyond these improvements, the LACC Foundation carries out all the usual work of engagement and cultivation, with letters, email updates, phone calls, donor visits, and all the rest. It also throws a gala every year, where it honors one or two alumni. This year, it's scheduled for October at the Beverly Hilton and will honor the Hollywood foreign press, several of whom are alumni of the school.

Schwartz works hard at upselling alumni on their donations. One alum had given $100 faithfully every year until the donation jumped substantially three years ago. “When someone had given us a gift of a $1,000, somebody we had never spoken to, we contacted that alum," said Schwartz. "That discussion has led to gifts of $20,000 coming in the past two years. More importantly, we are in his estate. We will probably be getting a seven-figure gift. But that is happening more and more as we talk to alumni, or even emeriti, retired professors.”

Faculty can be a surprising source of campus gifts, and that's been true at LACC. Dr. Philip Schlessinger, professor of political science, who taught more than LACC 40,000 students over 54 years, left a substantial bequest that funded the President Scholar’s Program. Started four years ago, it offers free tuition, books, even bus passes to students graduating high school with at least 3.75 GPA who are unable to afford a four-year school, often due to immigration issues. Without this program’s assistance, one student told Schwartz he simply would have had to go to work. Schwartz highlighted another notable emeriti gift: “We had a $1 million bequest from the former head of the theater department, Norman Mennes.”

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Wealthy LACC alumni have come out of the woodwork over time. One is Steve Lebowitz ('60), who made his fortune in real estate development. In 2015, he donated $125,000 to put a 20-foot-tall kinetic sculpture titled “Ripples,” by artist Jeffrey Laudenslager, in the college quad. He got so much satisfaction from the dedication ceremony that he approached Schwartz again, saying, “Now I want to talk with you about building housing for veterans on the campus." Lebowitz ended up committing a million dollars for such housing, making a pledge that the LACC Foundation has used to leverage other support in Los Angeles for what will ultimately be a $12 million structure.

Schwartz and his team also keep a close eye on foundations. To attract such grants, LACC does not pitch the college per se. “Frankly, I don’t think that is very compelling.” Instead, Schwartz asks for help with specific programs in the college. “Disney foundation supports the veterans, and the Herb Alpert foundation has supported the music department,” he said. The Goldman Sachs Foundation has given about $2 million over the last several years to support the 10,000 Small Businesses initiative in the Los Angeles metropolitan region.

Other funders, like the Ralph M. Parsons and Weingart foundations, support the Guardian Scholars Program, which was started six years ago for emancipated foster youth students on campus, the largest program in the state of any community college. There are 125 students in the program receiving additional counseling and tutoring along with books and other support the average student would not get. Their graduation rates are much higher than other foster youth in similar programs.

Schwartz's foundation strategy makes a lot of sense. As we often report, many funders right now are looking at community colleges as important vehicles for combating inequality by promoting more upward social mobility. And with Hillary Clinton running for president on a platform that promises free tuition to community college students, the attention to these post-secondary schools will likely only increase. 

What advice would Schwartz give to other nonprofits? “Find the stories you want to tell, and find the people you need to tell them to,” Schwartz said. “Once you explain what’s happening and what the need is, people are pretty philanthropic by nature."

Of course, also, Schwartz stresses the importance of building a first-rate database!

Related: Inside the Fundraising Shop of a Top Public School